Tag Archives: child poverty

Joe Biden And Childhood Poverty

Joe Biden has been President for barely a month, and he has already proved me wrong.

Don’t misunderstand–I have always really liked Biden. I have read enough stories and heard about enough incidents from people who know him personally to recognize that he is a genuinely decent, caring human being. A mensch. I was in agreement with his platform, and I was happy to vote for him. But his long history of bipartisanship in the Senate–not to mention the Obama Administration’s (constantly rebuffed) efforts to reach across the aisle–led me to expect more of the same.

Instead, Biden hasn’t just “hit the ground running.” He has been aggressive and arguably transformative. He has acted decisively to rid the federal government of the sleeper agents (my terminology, but I’d argue it’s accurate) inserted in various agencies; he’s appointed highly competent, experienced people to replace the corrupt lobbyists and know-nothings intent upon crippling those agencies, and I have applauded his clear commitment to the environment, to ending the pandemic and getting the economy back on track, among numerous other things.

While Biden has been civil and welcoming to Republicans who have made noises about compromise–Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post dubbed Biden’s recent meeting with ten GOP Senators an “exercise in performative bipartisanship”– he’s also made it very clear that he intends to fulfill his campaign promises with or without them. No more falling for what has aptly been called the GOP’s “Lucy and the football” ploys.

In other words, the good news has just kept coming!

And here’s more: I only recently became aware of an incredibly important element of Biden’s pandemic stimulus–a measure that experts say could reduce childhood poverty by fifty percent.

As Nicholas Kristof explained in his column in the New York Times, 

President Biden included a proposal in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that one study says would cut child poverty by half. We in the news media have focused on direct payments to individuals, but the historic element of Biden’s plan is its effort to slash child poverty.

“The American Rescue Plan is the most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president,” Jason Furman, a Harvard economist, told me.

It will not surprise anyone to know that this provision was entirely absent from the Republican “compromise” proposal. (The party of “religion and Jesus and children,” as Representative Rosa DeLauro sarcastically put it…Or as Kristof writes, “Jesus says (19:14) suffer the little children to approach him; he absolutely does not recommend that the little children shall suffer.”)

Biden’s plan to address child poverty would expand the existing child tax credit, up to $3,600 a year for young children. There is an existing child tax credit, but the way it currently works, the families that are most in need of it earn too little to take advantage of it. They earn too little to pay taxes, and the credit is taken against taxes owed. So it looks progressive–even magnanimous– but in practice, it isn’t.  

Biden’s plan would change the credit into a monthly stipend–and as Kristof notes, even a sum as modest as $3,600 would be utterly transformative for many low-income families.

One reason to think that this would be so successful is that many other countries have used similar strategies to cut child poverty by large margins. Canada’s parallel approach cut child poverty by 20 to 30 percent, depending on who’s counting, and Britain under Tony Blair cut child poverty in half.

Now that Democrats are in power, Republicans can be expected to protest that the country can’t afford Biden’s plan. (That protest conveniently overlooks the $2.3 trillion dollar cost of their massive tax cut, which primarily enriched the already affluent.) A cost-benefit analysis says we certainly can afford it, because it will ultimately save money– current estimates put the costs of child poverty to the United States at about $1 trillion annually, a sum that reflects reduced adult productivity, increased crime and higher health care costs. 

During the primaries, I worried that both Biden and Bernie were too old. I was wrong. It may be that Biden expects to be a one-term president–a realization that frees him from second-term electoral calculations, and reminds him that he has a limited time to turn the country around. 

Whatever the reason, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Biden is on his way to being a truly transformative president.


We’re Number One!

Over the past couple of decades, a number of conservative politicians have championed a distorted American Exceptionalism characterized by the jingoistic boast, “We’re number one!”

According to a recent report highlighted by The Hill, one area in which we are indeed number one is child poverty. Currently, more than 46 million Americans live in poverty, and more than a third of those are children. The U.S. child poverty rate is 22 percent – the highest of any of the rich countries.

Congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan and state-level politicians like Indiana Governor Mike Pence blame child poverty on single mothers, and insist that the way to address the problem is to incentivize marriage. That “solution” ignores the fact that in countries with similar rates of unwed motherhood and a more robust social safety net (think Scandinavian countries), child poverty rates hover around 3 percent.

Attributing child poverty to low rates of marriage also flies in the face of a good deal of recent research suggesting that people who enjoy financial security are more likely to get and stay married. Indiana Governor Pence recently shared a statistic that upper-income folks and college graduates are more likely to have stable marriages as evidence that marriage brings financial security. Actually, it’s the other way around; people who aren’t sweating the rent are more likely to stay married.

As we academic types are wont to point out, correlation is not causation.

If unmarried mothers are not the cause of childhood poverty, what is? At a recent conference hosted by The Roosevelt Institute, the Century Foundation and the Academic Pediatric Association, participants considered the causes and consequences of poverty experienced by a significant percentage of the nation’s children.

Low-wage jobs are an obvious culprit. At least 30 percent of poor children live in homes where one parent works full-time. Full time work at the current minimum wage, however, cannot lift a family of three above the poverty line. Worse, most minimum and low-wage jobs are tenuous. Not only are benefits rare, but parents who miss work to care for a sick child are likely to see their pay docked while also risking termination.

Congressmen earn a base salary of $174,000 per year, so it is probably not surprising that few of them seem to understand the stresses poverty exacts from children. These children grow up in very unstable circumstances, with caregivers (usually mothers but increasingly grandparents) whose struggles to make ends meet sap time and energy that the more fortunate can devote to parenting.

If Congress is unlikely to recognize the social and human costs of an inadequate safety net any time soon, there are at least some state and municipal-level initiatives that hold promise. Several cities, most notably Seattle at $15 per hour, have recently raised their minimum wage. And the Massachusetts legislature has just approved a measure that will gradually raise that state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2017, up from its current $8 level. Governor Deval Patrick is expected to sign it into law.

New York City and Memphis, Tennessee are experimenting with cash transfer programs, and a variety of cities have instituted home visitation programs meant to provide education and other services to low-income families, in an effort to improve cognitive and health outcomes for children in those families.

As promising as several of these experiments are, they are no substitute for a wholesale rethinking of this nation’s approach to poverty, especially as it affects our children.
The past decade has been dominated by a political rhetoric that can only be characterized as Social Darwinism – the belief (bolstered by a distorted Calvinism) that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective, that they are “takers” or lazy or “lack middle-class values.”

Little by little, those stereotypes are being challenged by sound research and by the stories of real people – by the nascent movement for a living wage and ample economic research demonstrating that a living wage benefits the entire economy, not just low-wage workers. That story needs to be told, and retold.

When it comes to child poverty, America should not be number one.